Stem cell polling clashes over research that destroys embryos

WASHINGTON (BP)--Americans strongly favor non-embryonic stem cell research over experimentation that destroys human embryos, according to two new polls.

A survey performed by The Harris Poll, however, showed widespread support for destructive stem cell research. Another recent poll reported a majority of Americans believe it is more important to conduct such research than to protect human embryos.

To at least some extent, the conflict among the surveys, which were announced between Aug. 18 and 24, appears to be a product of the information provided and the way questions are asked by pollsters.

Stem cell research already has been a hotly debated issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, have attacked President Bush’s policy barring federal funds for destructive embryonic stem cell research. First lady Laura Bush has defended her husband’s order.

The extraction of embryonic stem cells for research destroys the human embryo from whom it is taken. The procurement of stem cells from adults and other non-embryonic sources does not harm the donor.

A survey commissioned by the National Right to Life Committee found 53 percent of adults oppose government funding of stem cell research that destroys human embryos, while 38 percent support such use of taxes. Meanwhile, 74 percent favor government funds for stem cell experimentation that does not kill human embryos, and 20 percent oppose it.

In a poll commissioned by the Pro-life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 47 percent of adults said they favored federal funds for stem cell research that destroys human embryos, while 43 were opposed. In a question about which research method they would prefer their taxes to fund, 61 percent chose research using stem cells from adults and other sources that is not harmful, while 23 percent chose experiments using all methods, including those that destroy embryos.

Wilson Research Strategies conducted the survey for the NRLC, while International Communications Research did the poll for the USCCB.

In a survey commissioned by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 52 percent of respondents said doing “stem cell research that might result in new medical cures” is more important than “not destroying the potential life of human embryos involved in this research.” That is an increase of 9 percent from 2002. Thirty-four percent in the new poll said protecting embryos is more important.

Meanwhile, The Harris Poll reported 73 percent of Americans say embryonic stem cell research should be permitted, while only 11 percent oppose it. That marked a 12 percent increase in support of embryonic research from a Harris poll taken in 2001.

Harris presented the following question in its online survey of more than 2,200 adults: “Stem cells come from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization, which are not used and normally destroyed. Many medical researchers want to use them to develop treatments, or to prevent diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. On balance, do you think this research should or should not be allowed?”

The Catholic Conference’s Richard Doerflinger called the Harris survey “one of the most dishonest polls I’ve ever seen.”

“It simply ignores the current issue, which is whether federal funds should be used to encourage the killing of human embryos to make new stem cell lines,” said Doerflinger, deputy director of the USCCB’s Pro-life Secretariat, according to LifeNews.com. “Instead it asks whether stem cell research should be ‘allowed’ and refuses to mention the central fact that it means destroying embryos.”

The Harris survey also fails to mention stem cells are extracted from embryos other than those left over in fertility clinics. It also lists Alzheimer’s as a disease stem cells may provide treatment for, when researchers have acknowledged they do not believe stem cells are likely to produce a therapy for the affliction.

The Pew poll, which was performed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, described an embryo as having “potential life.”

Another subject the Harris and Pew polls did not broach was cloning. Some proponents of embryonic research support cloning in order to procure stem cells from embryos normally less than a week old.

The surveys commissioned by the NRLC and USCCB did seek opinions on cloning for research purposes.

When asked in the NRLC-sponsored survey which is closest to their view:

-- 69 percent said all human cloning should be prohibited.

-- 24 percent said cloning “to create human embryos for stem cell research which would kill them should be allowed and only cloning for reproduction should be banned.”

In the USCCB poll, 80 percent opposed cloning “to create a supply of human embryos to be destroyed in medical research,” while 13 percent favored it. On the question of cloning “to create children for infertile couples,” 82 percent were opposed, while 11 percent were in favor.

“Cloning embryos for their stem cells is the logical next step in the embryonic stem cell research agenda,” Doerflinger said in a written statement.

While Bush’s policy prevents federal funding of stem cell research that destroys embryos, it does not ban private support for such experimentation. It also allows government grants for research on stem cell lines already in existence when he issued his order in 2001.

So far, embryonic stem cells have produced no effective treatments in human beings and have had a tendency to generate tumors in laboratory animals.

Research using stem cells from adults and other non-embryonic sources, such as umbilical cord blood and placentas, already has resulted in successful treatments for more than 40 diseases and afflictions, according to reports. Remedies have been reported for maladies such as heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.

Last year, about $190 million in federal funds went toward non-embryonic stem cell research and about $25 million for experimentation on stem cells lines that existed before the president’s 2001 directive.

About 1,000 adults participated in the surveys commissioned by NRLC and USCCB, while about 1,500 were polled in the Pew-sponsored survey.